Characters: Dr. Kim Matusmoto, Klevetati Yoshino
Kim stood watching the latest batch of supplies for Abbai slide into place aboard the shuttle. From the looks of it there’d be little room for the pilot, much less extra passengers, by the time it was done.
Yoshino entered the docking bay, moving at a good clip despite the cat draped around her neck like an old-fashioned fur stole. She stopped at Kim’s side with a small bow.
Kim had just begun to pace, agitated by the possibility of a delay. Her head came up as she sensed Yoshino’s presence a moment before the silent greeting. “Oh good, that was quick.” Then she looked at Kuri. “Will Kuri be along for the trip?”
Yoshino blinked, then flushed brightly. “Ah. I came straight from the mess hall … I didn’t realize we’d be able to leave right away, though I should have. Can we go back to my quarters for just a moment?”
“Of course. As it is, we’ll likely have to wait for the next shuttle.” She sighed, waving to the loading shuttle as she turned to exit the bay. “I can tell you what I’ve found along the way.”
“Yes, please,” Yoshino said as she followed.
Kim took a deep breath and launched into her news. “It took me a while, as out of date as I was, but I was able to run down an old contact that operates in this sector.
“He’s quite certain the pieces haven’t hit the market, and what’s more, there’s good reason to believe they never will.” And then surprisingly, she grinned.
“How could that be?” Yoshino asked, puzzlement clearly written across her pale features.
“It has to do with the nature of the Llort. They are… compulsive thieves? I’m not sure how to catagorize it, strange as it is. It’s something woven into their whole society.”
“It sounds like some sort of strange game,” Yoshino said, as she reached her quarters and opened the door. “So, it’s possible the Llort who took the Tributes still have them and intend to keep them?”
“Yes, on both counts. And if they follow the stereotype, they would never sell them, or give them away. They would be trophies of their skill.”
Yoshino deftly removed Kuri’s harness and set the cat on the floor. She promptly went over to rub against Kim’s ankles as Yoshino went to a small wall cabinet. “That could pose a problem for us.”
Kim crouched and stroked Kuri’s back. “One would think so, but this is where it gets even stranger.”
Yoshino turned from opening the cabinet’s lock. “Oh?”
“So long as we can find them, all it will take is confronting them about the theft. Then… they’ll just give it back.” Her expression held amazement, close to laughing at the strangeness of it.
Yoshino’s hand dropped away from the cabinet door. “You’re joking, you must be.”
“I’m not. I hardly believed it myself, when I was told, but after hunting down a few more references while I waited, it looks to be entirely true.”
“A strange game indeed. Still, this could be dangerous.” Yoshino reached back into the cabinet and withdrew the smaller of her two swords, along with a cloth sash. She quickly knotted the sash around her waist and tucked the sword into it.
“I know.” Kim sobered. “This war has changed a lot of things, and I think it would be dangerous to assume their nature hasn’t as well.”
Yoshino closed the cabinet and nodded. “In any case, we’d better see to this right away. It shouldn’t be necessary to wait for another shuttle.”
“No?” She looked questioningly at Yoshino.
“If there’s a fighter available, I can fly us down. Anla’shok Morgan has not cleared me for combat piloting, but I don’t think a simple shuttle run would raise any objections.”
“Well… that is good news.” She smiled. “And I have just a little more good news to add, though you may have already guessed it. My contact recognized one of the Llort Sephrin had drawn. And told me where he was last known to be living. That is why I am in such a rush.”
“I am ready.” Yoshino gestured toward the door.
After a glance to be sure Kuri was clear of her feet, Kim stepped out into the hall.
A few minutes later, they were settling into the cockpit of one of the Thunderbolts, with Yoshino quickly going through the preflight checklist. “What is our destination?” she asked.
“The spaceport. The Llort is reported to be keeping rooms in the cave complex.”
“Understood.” Yoshino tapped her comm. “Storm Three to C&C, Yoshino and Matsumoto en route to Kahi’alia spaceport.”
The reply was crisp. “C&C to Storm Three, good hunting.”
Yoshino wrapped her fingers around the twin control sticks of the Thunderbolt, and guided it cleanly out of the docking bay. Kim could see the reflection of a smile in the canopy as the craft swept out into the darkness of space.
After a few moments taking in the view and the smooth passage towards Abbai, Kim smiled as well. “You’re a fair hand at flying these,” she commented.
“I confess, I wasn’t sure what else to do,” Yoshino said, speaking slowly, as if she was choosing each word with care. “Everyone was gone, and the work on the ship was important, but … it wasn’t enough. I had to do something to keep myself from going crazy.”
“I understand. Without a little variety, any job gets dull.”
“I also did a lot of sword work, but Quartermaster Arven’dra got rather upset with me after a while. I really must find a wooden bokken.”
Kim chuckled softly as she let herself imagine what had happened. Her amusement died soon, when she took another look outside. The panoramic blues, greens and whites that comprised the view of Abbai from orbit had gone, and in their place was a view of the island archipelagos that made up Kahi’alia province. Even from several thousand feet up, Kim could see where lush tropical jungles had been scorched and blackened, and several dark grey clouds that were clearly signs of pollution, not rain.
The fighter continued to descend, and once Yoshino got clearance, plunged toward the enormous crater of a long-dead volcano, home to the Kahi’alia spaceport. “How clever,” Yoshino murmured. “So little land space, so they put the spaceport in the one place no good for anything else.”
Once set down and out of the fighter, Yoshino took special care to secure it. “This place does not feel well at all,” she said quietly. Kim nodded in sober agreement.
It took only a few minutes to get directions to the lodging house where the Llort had been seen. It was underground deep within the crater, far below the docking levels, sharing space with small warehouses and dangerous-looking bars.
“I was only there once, but I feel like I’m back in Downbelow on Babylon 5,” Yoshino said as they opened the lodging house door.
The Abbai who sat behind the desk looked at them with large, listless eyes. A bit too large, Yoshino realized, as their pupils were constricted down to near pinpoints. She suppressed a shudder. “We are looking for a pair of Llort who have been rooming here,” she said. “Can you help us?”
Kim helped by drawing out the printed sketches of their likenesses from her pocket, spreading them on the desk.
The Abbai peered closely, so closely and for so long that Yoshino thought he was going to pass out onto the desk. But at last he lifted his head and nodded. “Second shaft, last on the right,” he said.
It was an effort for Kim to keep a grimace from her face. The murky, weighted mind she was confronted with was no better than what sight offered. She glanced at Yoshino, and nodded for her to go ahead.
At the near end, over half the lights illuminating the hallway weren’t working. By the time Kim and Yoshino were halfway down the long, narrow shaft cut into the volcanic stone, all but one or two of the wall sconces were dark. As the light and sound decreased, the smells — myriad but universally unpleasant — increased.
Their eyes were finally adjusted to the darkness as they reached the last door, which was standing open. Gesturing for Kim to cover her, Yoshino stepped in at a fighting crouch, sword drawn. Then she said several words in Japanese which Kim hadn’t known her friend knew. “It’s empty,” she added in disgust.
Kim stepped inside, glancing around the discarded refuse of a hasty move. She stepped over to one heap, drawn to something that looked too fine for its surroundings.
“What is it?” Yoshino asked, keeping her sword out just in case.
“Tapestry fabric.” She lifted it and gave it a shake.
Sheathing her sword, Yoshino pulled a small glow-rod from her boot, shook it, and held it up to the fabric. Tattered and filthy, it still managed to convey its value as Kim and Yoshino looked at it. Brightly colored threads depicted a silver fish-like creature, leaping high above a blue-and-white wave. The image looked familiar. “This looks like one of the Tributes, or part of it,” Kim said, pulling out her copy of Sephrin’s picture for confirmation.
“At least we know they were here,” Yoshino said.
Copyright © 2000 Jamie Lawson and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.